How does stress affect how we age?

For over 10 years, the Notre Dame Study of Health and Well-being at the University of Notre Dame has studied stress and its impact on health and aging. Through the project, the Adult Development and Aging Lab has collected immense amounts of data on an estimated 1,500 people and their experience with routine, daily stressors. Now, with four years of new funding from the National Institute on Aging, the research team will analyze how everyday stress and someone’s ability to regulate their response can benefit or impede health nearly a decade later as well as provide direction for stress prevention and intervention strategies.

This research, led by Cindy Bergeman, associate vice president for research and professor of psychology, will utilize information on 300 research participants from previous phases of the study. In those phases, the participants were asked to fill out paper and pencil questionnaires each year, to complete data bursts – from answering daily questions for eight straight weeks, five different times across a 10-year period – and to participate in some in-person interviews and health assessments about their daily life, their stresses and uplifts, and their resiliency resources.

Cindy Bergeman works with an undergraduate student.

“Stress from difficult relationships, financial issues, or other daily pressures can become chronic,” said Bergeman. “And even though the everyday stressors someone faces are not physical in nature, the body produces the same ‘fight or flight’ response as if they were. In the short term this can be advantageous, but over a lifespan this response may lead to morbidity and mortality."

"Our goal with this research is to capture a full picture of how everyday, typical stress and the physical response participants have impacts physical, emotional, and cognitive health.”

With the new project, participants will be asked to keep daily diaries and provide cortisol samples. Cortisol works in the brain to control emotional traits like mood and motivation, while also regulating blood pressure and glucose to provide energy for the “fight or flight” response. By analyzing the cortisol samples from participants, the Notre Dame researchers can better understand how self-reports of stress align with participants’ hormonal stress reactions.

Bergeman’s research team will utilize their new lab space in Corbett Family Hall, which includes both computer and wet lab spaces as well as exam rooms for gathering participant health data. At this point the lab will collect a participant’s health history, physical assessment - including height, weight, and blood pressure – a cognitive analysis, and a blood draw, which will help identify cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune system factors.

Some of that information will also be taken during a stress test. This assessment will be used to analyze hormonal, psychological, and physiological responses to stress, as well as stress recovery in real time.

Participants within the study are asked to complete cognitive assessments, provide cortisol samples, undergo a physical assessment, and participate in a stress test.

“Although we have previous data to tell how different people respond to and regulate their stress, we haven’t really had an opportunity to look at this problem across multiple timescales on an emotional and physical level,” said Bergeman.

“This new phase in our research allows us to see their heart rate, respiratory response, skin conductance, and cortisol secretion changes as stress is occurring and then the patterns of regulation following their stress exposure.”

All of the previously collected data, assessments, and new tests will allow for a rare opportunity to complete a longitudinal study assessing a decade of information and how responses to stress have impacted the health and aging of participants over time. To quantify their results, the researchers will use an approach called dynamic systems analysis to model the different trajectories of reactions to daily and lab-induced stress events. This will involve mapping the emotional reaction, including stress resistance and recovery for each participant.

The dynamic systems analysis method is one that Bergeman previously used in a study published in 2004, which looked at the emotional well-being of those who had recently suffered the death of a spouse. The goal of that study was to understand how the major stress event of becoming a widow impacts emotional well-being.

Cindy Bergeman works with undergraduates as they code participant responses.

The widowhood study found that the death of a spouse does perturb the emotion system away from equilibrium, and that a widow’s emotions will oscillate more erratically as they work back towards equilibrium. This was identified by modeling all participants’ trajectories and finding the individual differences in how participants regulated – including those who eventually flourished and those who did not.

“The widowhood study looks at a major stress event, which teaches us a lot but doesn’t equate to the everyday experience people have,” said Bergeman. “With the current study, our research team is looking at the stress events that are minor perturbations in daily life and how people’s inability to regulate that stress over time results in symptoms of failing cognitive and physical health.”

In using the dynamics systems approach in the new study, the aim is to look at how tightly the stress system and emotional system are coupled. The team will also assess how emotionally sensitive some participants are to stress and whether that sensitivity impacts recovery from a stress event.

Staff in the lab analyze respiratory, cardiovascular, and other physiological cues to decipher how different participants respond to stress.

Once the researchers have patterned the relationship between stress and emotional regulation, the plan is to identify which participants were able to recover more quickly, which traits of individuals provided better outcomes for handling stress, and which environments of their participants seemed to help individuals cope. Overall, these results could show significant relations between those with declining health and poor stress regulation or those aging well and with strong stress resiliency traits.

“A social support network can be an important factor for regulating stress, but it’s complicated to identify what about that network is beneficial or when the social network has an adverse effect and is actually the primary stressor,” said Bergeman.

“We want to further tease apart what makes social support beneficial for stress regulation and decipher what aspects of social support may not be good for stress regulation across adulthood.”

To manage all of the data that has been and will be collected over the next four years, the lab employs data managers, data analysts, as well as graduate and undergraduate students. Together, the team works on various steps of participant involvement, such as administering the cognitive assessment, analyzing samples of cortisol, and more. Additionally, participant blood analyses are conducted by the South Bend Medical Foundation, a nonprofit medical laboratory in the local community.

The Adult Development and Aging Lab is in its twelfth year of studying stress and aging.

Undergraduate students also have the opportunity to develop their own projects on stress in Bergeman’s lab by choosing sub-groups of study participants with previously collected data. These smaller studies are then overseen by Bergeman and the lab’s graduate students, who then guide the undergraduates through their project design or help them further develop their study ideas.

“Although the priority for our lab is this study of stress and its impact on aging, the vast amount of data we gather allows for variability of projects for the students who work in my lab,” said Bergeman.

“From topics like stress and its link to diabetes and whether older or younger people are better at regulating their stress, Notre Dame students have a unique opportunity to carve out an independent project for themselves and really dive into the research process.”

Current students within Bergeman’s lab are graduate students of psychology Raquael Joiner and Niccole Nelson as well as undergraduate students Katherine Flanagan, Isabelle Hornung, Agatha Laboe, Gwendolyn Mattingly, Rebecca Parmenter, and Allison Spraul.

Collaborators on the current phase of Bergeman’s study are Nathan Rose, assistant professor of psychology and William P. and Hazel B. White Collegiate Chair at Notre Dame; Steven Boker, professor of quantitative psychology at the University of Virginia; George Bonanno, professor of clinical of psychology at Columbia University; Lis Nielsen, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s Individual Behavioral Processes Branch, and Teresa Seeman, professor of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Notre Dame researchers who collaborated on previous phases of the study are Gitta Lubke, professor of psychology; Scott Maxwell, professor of psychology and Matthew A. Fitzsimon Chair, and Scott Monroe, William K. Warren Foundation Professor of Psychology.

To learn more about the Adult Development and Aging Lab and Bergeman’s work, please visit adalab.nd.edu.


Brandi Klingerman / Research Communications Specialist

Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame

bklinger@nd.edu / 574.631.8183

research.nd.edu / @UNDResearch

About Notre Dame Research:

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see research.nd.edu or @UNDResearch.

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